The ninth annual Montclair Film Festival (MFF) recognized the safety concerns of presenting in the spring of 2020. This week, MFF boasts a critically-acclaimed film selection for its new October date, with virtual and drive-in screening options from October 16 – 25th.
From Oscar contenders to indie triumphs, MFF has a slew of impressive films and events. The festival kicks off Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, hosts Francis Lee’s Ammonite as the Narrative Centerpiece, and closes with Regina King’s One Night in Miami… Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself, directed by Frank Oz, marks the Documentary Centerpiece for the Carpool Theater Drive-In, while Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is honored as the festival’s Virtual Centerpiece.
Standout films include Audrey Plaza-led thriller Black Bear, tender odyssey The Outside Story starring Brian Tyree Henry, and supernatural comedy of errors Blithe Spirit with Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench, and Leslie Mann.
Virtual festivalgoers are also treated to moderated discussions with actor Sienna Miller, the Palm Springs cast, and a “Breakthroughs” spotlight series with One Night in Miami… star Kingsley Ben-Adir and Minari director Lee Isaac Chung. The iconic screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin also sits down with comedic genius Stephen Colbert for a Filmmaker Tribute discussion about Sorkin’s West Wing reunion and recent Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Colbert, whose wife Evelyn Colbert is the President of the MFF Board, presents “The Lost Pilot Series: Episode 1, Sometimes Live,” a star-studded Zoom reading of Colbert’s 1998 ABC pilot of the same name. The hour-long scripted series Sometimes Live was set behind the scenes of a fictional variety show, and now, over 20 years later, Colbert shares the pilot for one night only—virtually alongside friends Dana Carvey, Sheryl Crow, Keegan-Michael Key, Bob Odenkirk, and more.
In between screenings, MFF Executive Director Tom Hall opened up to The Knockturnal about the decision to postpone the festival from May until October and shared what the film curation process was like amidst the ever-changing 2020 festival landscape.
The Knockturnal: First of all, can you please describe your role as Executive Director, and what it was like repositioning the festival in 2020?
Tom Hall: “Executive Director” at a lot of organizations can mean anything from being in charge of the budget and the staffing, and that’s certainly the case here, but I also serve as Artistic Director, so I have a dual function. I program all the films with my programming colleagues and I work on sort of every aspect of the festival with my small but mighty team of year-round colleagues. We were scheduled originally to have the festival happen May 1 – 10th. On March 14th, we made the then-difficult decision—now blindingly obvious decision—to postpone the in-person festival. We were at the forefront for that. SXSW had cancelled at that point; Tribeca Film Festival had not. We were looking at the tea leaves on the East Coast, New Jersey in particular where initially COVID was a hotspot and decided to postpone the festival.
We had not laid out all of the expenses for the film festival yet; we hadn’t printed our banners and are marketing materials, so that was actually one of the drivers for us to make the call…It would have been really disastrous financially for us if we were not able to hold back on those expenses. We conserved our resources and applied for and received a PPE loan in the second round of financing as a non-profit, and that has allowed us to retain our entire year-round staff throughout the pandemic. I’m incredibly proud of that. We were able to keep people working and in their jobs for the festival in the fall. It’s a small staff but it’s a very dedicated group of people, and as the Executive Director, it was really important for me to do that.
In the late spring, early summer, we launched into learning how we were going to change the festival for this year, which was: how does the virtual platform work, what’s going on with filmmakers and distributors? We bought passes to other festivals and learned a lot of lessons, and then in June and July, we launched our own theater drive-in weekends. We did three films per month on a single weekend, so we learned a lot from that procedure. How do you park cars at a drive-in? How do you keep COVID-compliant drive-in screenings with enough space for the cars? What does that mean for capacity, what does capacity mean for the budget? We learned a lot from spring and summer, and then October became sort of a perfect time for us because it’s after the big early fall festival window, which is Toronto (TIFF), Venice, Telluride, the Hamptons (HIFF), and to go after all of those festivals just to see where they landed as well, and to just try to get in front of the premieres and all of the issues that would come from the film business side. So I think we landed in a really great spot. We’re ending up showing films that we love and are really proud of in drive-in and on virtual. It’s very customizable, so we can work with every filmmaker and every distributor to meet their needs, and that’s been a real gift to our organization as well because it’s allowed us to have a positive event in the middle of a terrible pandemic. We’re grateful for that.
The Knockturnal: What was the reshuffling process like from a programming aspect for festival curation?
Tom Hall: We had to reprogram the entire festival. In March, we had already programmed the entire festival with 150 films. And then when COVID hit and the deck shuffled, in terms of feature films, like 90% of that program went away. We reached out starting in August to our traditional partners in film distribution, but also to filmmakers who had submitted films to us and also to producers who we knew had projects. We went out to our group, to our submitters, and just let them know the dates were happening. We were interested in certain titles, and they have relationships with us already. We’re traditionally in the spring but it’s our ninth year this year. We’ve worked with all of the major distribution companies for independent and non-fiction film in the past so they know who we are and who our audience is. We’ve always been very transparent about that with them: it’s Montclair, it’s diverse, it’s economically diverse. It worked out great.
We’ve never been a premieres festival or a sales festival; we are a regional festival so we don’t really have a lot of buyers coming in for world premieres. We’ve always done a curated program that we think represents what is the best out there right now. I think of it more as a Telluride Film Festival—not in terms of everyone getting together in the mountains to have an exceptional landscape around them and it being a summer camp for film nerds, but it’s more that we heavily curate the program and there’s not a lot of buying and selling that happens at our festival as well. [But] distributors are still trying to reach people; they’re kind of in the Wild West right now and don’t know when theaters are going to open again. They’re trying to get films in for awards consideration and want them to be in people’s minds, so we have the value add of being able to do Q&As and conversations and be able to feature talent, which has been very, very helpful to us. The films this year are major awards season contenders that traditionally in May, we haven’t been in the window for, so we are very excited now to be able to show them now.
The Knockturnal: Speaking of talent, the lineup for the Conversations series this year is extremely impressive. How did you connect with these actors and directors?
Tom Hall: The Colberts are co-founders of the festival, essentially. Evelyn Colbert is our Board President. She was the second person to get involved with MFF. I’ve worked at a lot of film festivals—the Hamptons, Nantucket, Newport, Rhode Island. I ran the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida for 10 years. Obviously, I know having Stephen Colbert involved in the festival is a huge asset and a huge benefit to our organization. The fun part is that a lot of course a lot of talent want to talk to him. Aaron Sorkin was certainly at the top of the list for Stephen, so that was a very fortunate coming together of talent and kismet. The nice thing about virtual is that now suddenly everyone in America if they want to, can see these programs and be a part of our festival through our virtual platform which is really nice because there’s no capacity or geographic limit. We can show these all over the world if we want to, and it really opens the door to these conversations that we’ve always had in person. This program is really important and makes it feel more like a festival than just watching movie at home.
In the past, Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Jon Stewart, we’ve done major conversations with Stephen every year. It’s sort of his favorite thing to do at the festival to be involved, so we will always be grateful for that. Because of that tradition and that program, we are able to reach out to others, and we were really fortunate to work with Clayton Davis this year who is the new Awards Season Editor at Variety. When we look at films, we look at projects that we have an interest in. Like Trial of the Chicago 7 came on Netflix right when the festival opened, so it wasn’t eligible for playing in our program but we loved the movie, we love Aaron Sorkin, and we were thinking “how can we help this film and bring some attention to the work of this film?” It’s a great time to talk to Aaron Sorkin, the West Wing revival is happening. It just worked out great.
The Knockturnal: The Montclair Film Festival also has a New Jersey Filmmakers Panel. How does MFF incorporate the local New Jersey area for programming?
Tom Hall: When I got to the festival, I added competitive categories—not because I like to place art against other art and say which one is better, but filmmakers like it, distributors like it, everyone in the industry likes it. So we launched a New Jersey Filmmakers category at the festival and that has been a really successful way for us to incorporate non-fiction filmmaking in New Jersey in particular. We always look for local feature films in the program as well. It ends up being that we get a lot of short films from Montclair and general New Jersey, so we have four shorts programs featuring emerging and established talent.
For this year’s panel discussion, before I got to the Montclair Film Festival six years ago, there was a great panel discussion at the festival about bringing back the film production tax credit. Governor Phil Murphy brought back the film production tax credit last year, and he used the festival as a launching pad for the tax credit. Now with COVID shutting everything down, we were trying to figure out a way to talk about the ways COVID has impacted film and TV production in New Jersey. There was a lot of capacity built to accommodate production. Joker shot in New Jersey, David Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark shot in New Jersey. That was a real boom: you were starting to see major productions coming back to New Jersey, and we wanted to make sure that we were creating a platform for people to talk about the industry, for filmmakers and craftspeople and everybody involved in the process. We’ve always tried to keep the focus on New Jersey. We’re next to New York which is a huge production hub, so sometimes it feels like there’s this big brother-little brother attitude about New Jersey in general, but you’re starting to see that tax has re-established New Jersey as a great place to produce films. It’s very important to me that local filmmakers have a home for their work, and we want to be that place.
The Knockturnal: Will we see any Montclair Film Festival collaborations with Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark?
Tom Hall: It’s funny you say that, because if you think that I haven’t been on my hands and knees begging Warner Brothers, you would be sorely mistaken. The honor is all ours when we finally get someone like Aaron Sorkin to say yes…the idea that this is somehow us shining a light on Aaron Sorkin instead of Aaron Sorkin shining a light on us, I always find that to be sort of funny framing. So yes, we are in deep begging mode with Warner Brothers for Newark. You can print that: if they want to bring it to the festival or to a special event off-festival, we would blow it out of the water and make it incredible.
The Knockturnal: It’s a no-brainer for them to have some affiliation with a New Jersey festival! Looking ahead further into 2021, what do you think MFF’s 10th-anniversary festival next year will look like?
Tom Hall: We definitely will have a 10th-anniversary festival in 2021, and it will be in October. If it looks like this year’s festival because we don’t know what’s going to happen with the pandemic, then so be it. I think we’re having a successful festival so far, and we would look to do that again in October 2021. We’re expecting to do another summer drive-in series for 2021 regardless with COVID safety requirements. If the festival can be in-person if there’s a vaccine and people feel safe, or if it’s a hybrid model with some virtual and drive-in and maybe some in-person events, that would be possible too. We’re not going to be on the cutting edge of that as an organization. We are going to be well-behind the culture in those terms. I would never open a door to someone else that I wouldn’t walk through myself, and I feel that is an important principle to have as an organization. If I don’t feel safe walking into a movie theater, I wouldn’t expect other people to do it either.
We’ve seen what happened here and there are no illusions about when this will be solved. We will know through data and science. We just want people to be safe.
The Montclair Film Festival runs October 16 – 25. This interview Q&A has been edited for length.